Aims: The hereditary β-thalassemia major condition requires regular lifelong blood transfusions. Transfusion-related iron overloading has been associated with the onset of cardiovascular complications, including cardiac dysfunction and vascular anomalies. By using an untransfused murine model of β-thalassemia major, we tested the hypothesis that vascular endothelial dysfunction, alterations of arterial structure and of its mechanical properties would occur despite the absence of treatments.
Methods and results: Vascular function and structure were evaluated ex vivo. Compared to the controls, endothelium-dependent vasodilation with acetylcholine was blunted in mesenteric resistance arteries of β-thalassemic mice while the endothelium-independent vasodilator (sodium nitroprusside) produced comparable vessel dilation, indicating endothelial cell impairment with preserved smooth muscle cell reactivity to nitric oxide (NO). While these findings suggest a decrease in NO bioavailability, Western blotting showed heightened expression of aortic endothelial NO synthase (eNOS) in β-thalassemia. Vascular remodeling of the common carotid arteries revealed increased medial elastin content. Under isobaric conditions, the carotid arteries of β-thalassemic mice exhibited decreased wall stress and softening due to structural changes of the vessel wall.
Conclusions: A complex vasculopathy was identified in untransfused β-thalassemic mice characterized by altered carotid artery structure and endothelial dysfunction of resistance arterioles, likely attributable to reduced NO bioavailability despite enhanced vascular eNOS expression.